'Girls View Sexual Violence As Normal'

That's the title of a press release from Sociologists for Women in Society, which announced on Monday that a new study in the journal Gender & Society supports the theory that many young girls avoid reporting rape and other types of assault because they view this as "normal" behavior and/or feel they will be shamed for making a "big deal" about it.

The study, conducted by sociologist Heather Hlavka of Marquette University based on interviews with 100 girls aged three to 17, aims to go deeper than simply answering the question of why girls don't report abuse, to focus on "how violence is produced, maintained and normalized among youth," and on the language that girls use to describe this violence.

It's a study of the direct impact of rape culture, or what Hlavka calls "a patriarchal culture that normalizes and often encourages male power and aggression, particularly within the context of heterosexual relationships," citing Fineran and Bennett and Deboral Tolman.

In introducing the study, Sociologists for Women in Society cites a statistic from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN): 44% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 18, and 60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police.

RAINN has recently found itself a springboard both for those who decry rape culture and those who claim that it doesn't exist. It issued a letter to the White House in February with recommendations for how the Obama administration should address sexual assault. 

To feminists and sexual assault victims and advocates, the language - RAINN put "rape culture" in quotes and asked the White House to focus on perpetrators instead of cultural factors - seemed a bit strange, but didn't necessarily read as a rejection of the existence of rape culture, or societal norms and factors that contribute to high rates of sexual assault, low rates of reporting and conviction and further victimization (by law enforcement and peers) of those who experience rape.

To those who argue that the idea of rape culture is absurd, or that it implicates too many people in what is a singular violent act, RAINN's words were a signal that feminists and advocates may be doing more harm than good by putting energy toward the destruction of cultural norms like catcalling, songs about "blurred lines" and jokes about rape and women's "place" as subordinate. 

I won't go too much into my personal feelings on the issue here. You can see myTwitter timeline for that (it comes up a lot). But I just wanted to point out that regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the idea that ours is a culture that encourages - or fails to discourage - sexual assault, this new study includes some compelling evidence that at least some young girls believe that it's "normal" for boys to touch them without their consent, that boys "can't help it," and that it isn't safe for girls to report unwanted touching or sexual advances because adults are not likely believe them, and other female students or friends will label them "sluts" and "whores." 

Not to undermine my last post, I will note that yes, this is obviously just one study. But it's clear from this study as well as the many others Hlavka cites and increasingly prevalent anecdotal accounts on social media that we have a problem. 

Whatever we label it, the evidence is hard to deny: young girls - and many grown women - feel that their sexual assaults are inevitable, something men "just do," and something they need to just "get over" and accept. While the interviews in Hlavka's study are hard to read, I'm hopeful that her work will help to push forward the conversation about why that is.